Months before mid-term legislative elections, congressional Democrats have formally signaled they will use the issue of corruption in Congress as a key weapon in efforts to regain control of the House and Senate. A day after Republicans tried to seize the advantage on the issue of lobbying reform, Democratic leaders unveiled their own package of proposals.
In an event that effectively doubled as the beginning of a campaign to win back control of Congress, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi portrayed a Republican initiative on lobbying reform as vague and insufficient.
"Republicans have been, and continue to resist true reform because they all benefit from enabling the culture of corruption," she said. "Republicans have allowed this poison tree of corruption to bear the fruit of very bad policy for the American people."
She joined other Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, in signing proposed legislation they call the Declaration of Honest Leadership Act.
"Our Honest Leadership Act will trump any day, and it is going to trump today, this culture of corruption that we find here in America that is based here in the Republican Congress and in this Republican administration," he said.
Steps Republicans are considering include a ban on privately funded travel, strengthening rules on disclosing contacts between lawmakers and lobbyists, and accepting gifts, as well as extending to two years the time before former lawmakers or staff can become lobbyists.
Democrats want an absolute ban on lobbyist-funded travel and gifts. And they want to go further by eliminating earmarks - special interest spending added to major legislation - and forcing an end to what Democrats allege are strong-arm tactics Republicans use to suppress debate.
Republicans are trying to avoid further political damage from the corruption investigation into the activities of Jack Abramoff, the former Washington lobbyist who pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges last year.
In negotiating a plea bargain with federal prosecutors, he is reported to have implicated a number of lawmakers, with the spotlight falling mostly on key Republicans.
Republican Congressman Bob Ney temporarily gave up his committee chairmanship, and could face indictment in connection with the scandal.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who stepped down last year, faced pressure because of his close ties to Abramoff, and is fighting charges of violating campaign finance laws in Texas.
Former Republican Congressman Randy Cunningham admitted to having accepted more than two million dollars in bribes from defense contractors.
In the ethics debate, Democrats may find the spotlight turned back on them.
Louisiana Democrat William Jefferson has been under federal investigation. His former aide recently pleaded guilty to bribery-related charges. Two other House Democrats face possible action by the House Ethics Committee.
Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggests Republicans will not hesitate to highlight these cases once the committee, which has been paralyzed for a year by partisan disputes, resumes work:
"There are people on the other side that should be before the ethics committee and were [lined up] to go before the ethics committee," he said.
At Wednesday's Democratic news conference, Senator Barack Obama said while Democrats do not have what he called a monopoly on virtue, Republican power has been marked by unprecedented excesses:
"I think it is fair to say that the scandals we have seen, both legal and illegal, under the current White House and Congress, are far worse than most of us would have imagined," he said.
Republicans responded Wednesday with a statement saying Democrat attempts at throwing mud and trying to tear down Republicans with the hope of winning mid-term elections in November will not get the Democrats elected.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist urged Democrats to avoid what he called divisive partisan politics, saying they should focus on meaningful bipartisan solutions.